Today’s guest contributor is Jennifer Gresham. Jennifer is a PhD biochemist who left a successful job at the Air Force Research Lab to pursue her passion for writing. She now helps people find the clarity and courage they need to transform their own lives at her blog Everyday Bright.
Your team is about to unleash the results of months of creative thinking. You can’t help wondering how life is going to change after your product hits the market: the thrill of scrambling to meet demand, interviews by The New York Times, and leaning back in your office chair to bask in success.
Yep, this is going to be big.
And then … it fails. Spectacularly. No sales, no interviews, just a disappointing lesson waiting to be dissected so you can try, try again.
You’ve probably heard about the benefits of failure, about how you have to discover what doesn’t work so you can, after multiple hard knocks, implement the right approach.
But what if I told you that you didn’t have to experience failure to benefit from it? What if all you had to do was imagine everything crashing down in order to avoid it?
Lessons (not) learned
A postmortem in a medical setting allows health professionals and the family to learn what caused a patient’s death. Everyone benefits except, of course, the patient. – Gary Klein, Harvard Business Review, Sep 2007
Postmortems, as they’re known in the business world, “are an attempt to review a recent calamity that has befallen the business with the noble intention of isolating the offending causes and making sure they never happen again.” The idea is that by dissecting our failures, we can prevent future ones.
It must be noted that despite many autopsies every year, people keep dying. And if your business relies solely on postmortems to find and fix its problems, the same is likely to be true.
There are many reasons these “lessons learned” exercises don’t work. First, there’s a lot of emotion to deal with after a failure. This can lead to either a lot of finger pointing or at the other extreme, a lot of silence in an effort to spare people’s feelings. In either case, you never get at the core issue, morale remains low, and you start your next effort at a disadvantage.
Second, you have to deal with self-serving bias, the tendency to ascribe one’s success to personal efforts and one’s failures to chance or circumstances beyond one’s control. You’ll hear people say, “It was a great idea, the market just wasn’t ready for it yet.” Maybe, maybe not.
Finally, there’s one more hurdle, and it’s a big one. Preventing a problem from reoccuring usually results in very different solutions than designing a process or product from scratch. We often limit our thinking to what already is, because it feels wasteful to start over after investing so many resources to create it.
Most postmortems can’t work because “killing the baby” isn’t a solution that’s on the table.
Curb your enthusiasm
My psychiatrist told me I was crazy and I said I want a second opinion. He said okay, you’re ugly too. – Rodney Dangerfield
Rodney Dangerfield was a stand-up comic who portrayed a loser who couldn’t get any respect. Nothing ever worked out for Rodney. Strange as it may seem, this is exactly the person you need to channel before you get too far in your business plans.
The most effective way to get in touch with your inner loser is to conduct a premortem, as devised by Gary Klein, the psychologist and researcher whose early work on intuitive decision making inspired Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink. As Klein says, “A premortem in a business setting comes at the beginning of a project rather than the end, so that the project can be improved rather than autopsied.”
It works like this:
Step 1 – Imagine failure. The team lead tells everyone he has consulted his crystal ball and it turns out the project has failed. The failure is catastrophic: everything that could possibly go wrong has. Unfortunately, the company bought the cheap crystal balls, and he can’t make out the reasons for the failure. He asks the team to consider what could have caused this disaster.
Step 2 – Generate reasons for failure. Team members write down all the possible reasons they can think of on a piece of a paper. The objective is to be as imaginative and broad as possible. It’s important to perform this exercise with everyone who is directly involved with the project. Each person will bring their own knowledge, intuition, and mental models to the problem.
Step 3 – Consolidate the lists. Going around the room, each person shares the potential causes of failure on their lists. The only discussion at this point should be for clarification.
Step 4 – Plan for the worst. The group can now choose 2 or 3 items from the list that generate the most concern and develop plans for preventing them. The other items should be assigned to team members to work on outside of the meeting. The team can either meet again to discuss the other issues or generate a collaborative space. The idea is to continue to revisit the list and make sure that, as much as possible, the problems are being addressed before they happen.
While you may be worried that such a process will be too depressing, in fact creating a safe climate for people to voice concerns can go a long way towards improving morale. You want team members to curb the enthusiasm that often blinds them to potential problems while encouraging them to be open and honest.
Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, a German Field Marshall in WWI, is famous for saying, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” Unless, of course, you’re smart enough to perform a premortem.
About the author: Jennifer Gresham is a PhD biochemist who left a successful job at the Air Force Research Lab to pursue her passion for writing. She now helps people find the clarity and courage they need to transform their own lives at her blog Everyday Bright. You can also find her on Twitter @JenGresham.
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